05/06/2005 12:00AM

McLeod gets in the game in big way

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia - Ross McLeod has had tremendous success in the gaming business in Canada. He's also off to a pretty good start in horse racing.

He bought his first horse, Tobe Suave, less than a year ago and had immediate success, winning the Burnaby Breeders' Cup at Hastings. He also owns 50 percent of Virtuous Lady, who figures as one of the favorites in the Supernaturel on Sunday at Hastings. A win by the Florida-bred could help ease some of McLeod's disappointment with not being able to run Santa Anita Derby runner-up General John B in the Kentucky Derby because of injury.

McLeod, 52, is co-founder and CEO of Great Canadian Gaming Corp., the parent company of Hastings. Great Canadian, which trades on the Toronto Stock Exchange, is valued at more than $1.5 billion, and McLeod owns about 30 percent of the company's stock.

The company was started by McLeod and three friends.

"When the four of us started the company in 1982, we formed a business that provided gaming services for charities," McLeod said. "We were like a rock-and-roll road show. We had a mobile casino and would go from hotel to banquet hall, setting up and taking down our equipment for each event."

According to McLeod, the impetus for forming the company came when the provincial government cut funding to charities by 25 percent.

"We thought we could help make up the difference, but both the government and the charities were pretty skeptical," he said. "We had to go and knock on the doors of the Red Crosses and the Canadian Cancer Societies and convince them that we could help them raise money. We finally won them over and became very successful. Eventually there was a nine-month wait for our services."

Originally, the money earned by a charity was tied to how well its casino night did. Now the provincial government collects the money from the casinos and distributes it to host municipalities, health care, education, and numerous charitable organizations. The introduction of slot machines made a huge difference to the revenue of the casinos, and when Hastings came up for sale in 2004, McLeod thought it was a great opportunity for Great Canadian.

"I thought that we were a good fit with horse racing," he said. "We are very good at the gaming business, and at the time we were partnered with Peter Wall, who had previous success in racing."

Great Canadian took complete control of Hastings last fall, and, under the direction of McLeod, the company has bought three other tracks as well: Georgian Downs, Fraser Downs, and Sandown.

"I think it's a good time to be in the horse racing business," he said. "I've been in the gaming business for over 20 years, and right now there are two areas where gaming is growing: poker and horse racing."

Horse racing is where McLeod's heart lies. He was a recreational poker player for most of his life, but he has given that up, and gets very excited when he talks about horse racing.

"There's really no comparison, and you just can't explain how much fun horse racing is," he said. "Winning with Tobe Suave was one of the greatest thrills in my life. And it doesn't go away. Whether it's a claiming horse or a stakes horse, the thrill of seeing your horse get there first is unbelievable. Forget the business side of it, I'm having the time of my life."

McLeod owns 13 horses, and while his original goal was to try to buy horses who could compete in the major races in the Pacific Northwest, his stable has evolved into a little bit more. McLeod even had a Kentucky Derby hopeful before General John B, his best horse, was injured.

"It was a devastating blow for everybody that has been working with him," he said. "His groom, Graydon Grey, has been in the business for 40 years and has never been to the Kentucky Derby. Plus both his trainer, Roger Stein, and jockey, Jon Court, have never gone either. It's a disappointment to me as well, but I've had more ecstasies than agonies since getting involved in racing, and I'm sure the General will bounce back."

Being involved with Hastings is a kind of homecoming for McLeod. He grew up in this area, and before entering the gaming business he was the director of Playland, the amusement park that is adjacent to the track. He also worked at Playland when he was going to university.

"You could say I've been in the entertainment business most of my life," he said. "The most important thing I've learned is that the customer comes first. We plan to completely upgrade Hastings to make it more customer-friendly. We're not only going to have the finest gourmet meals, but also the best hot dog in the world."

With McLeod's enthusiasm for the sport, business sense, and resources at hand, the future of Hastings is looking better than it has in a long time.